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In this file photo from March 2020, Cristina Bundukamara holds her daughter Eridanus, 2, as she marks her ballot for the 2020 presidential primary election at a voting station at the El Paso County Clerk’s Office downtown branch in Colorado Springs.

A slate of Republican candidates in El Paso County is calling for sweeping changes to local elections, claiming mail-in balloting and electronic voting systems can lead to fraud.

But Colorado elections officials say some of the proposed modifications would hinder voting accuracy and accessibility, while others wouldn't be allowed under current state law.

Clerk and Recorder candidate Peter Lupia is campaigning ahead of Colorado's June 28 primary election on a promise to return the county to the practice of hand-counting ballots at the precinct level on Election Day.

He says if elected he will ask the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners to defund all Dominion voting machines used in local elections and cancel all county contracts with the firm.

"We will ask voters to return to in-person ballot delivery by presenting their ID at a local precinct location where ballots would be hand counted on site then transferred to the Clerk's Office for final countywide tabulations of precinct filed totals," Lupia said. "Ballots would still arrive via mail (until that statute is repealed) but would be submitted in person to protect the chain of custody in delivery."

On his campaign website, Lupia promises to advocate for statewide election changes at the Legislature.

In an email to The Gazette, he said his proposed changes are necessary because he believes elections have been both inaccurate and fraudulent, with "overwhelming" evidence to prove it.

Lupia did not provide specific examples of such evidence, and elections officials in Colorado and elsewhere in the United States have disproved those claims.

But he is not alone in his convictions.

Political newcomers and county commission candidates Lindsay Moore and David Winney also say mail-in balloting and automatic tabulation is vulnerable to fraud. Moore is running against Holly Williams in District 1 and Winney is running against Cami Bremer in District 5.

Sheriff candidate Todd Watkins, a former Border Patrol agent, is also running on a promise that as sheriff he will nullify laws he deems unconstitutional and will "investigate election fraud where reasonable suspicion exists to do so."

Some of these candidates, including Watkins, have promoted a film called "2000 Mules," directed by conservative commentator Dinesh D'Souza. It claims to prove widespread voter fraud occurred in the 2020 presidential election. To date, dozens of federal and state investigations have found no evidence to overturn the election's results.

Matt Crane, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association, said he agreed with Bill Barr, the former U.S. attorney general, who laughed at the film.

"The evidence is completely uncompelling," Crane, a Republican, said. "For those people who actually work in elections, you look at that and you say, 'You have got to be kidding me.'"

Asking voters to cast their ballots in person is a misguided idea that probably would hurt voter turnout because most Colorado voters, of all affiliations, vote by mail or return their ballots via secure drop boxes, Crane said.

"What happens if (voters) don't show up (to cast their ballots on Election Day)?" Crane asked. He said about 93% of voters in a general election vote by mail. Of those voters, between 70% and 80% of them return their ballots to a drop box, he estimated.

"The vast majority of people are not going to commit to going to a specific location and wait in line when they can go to a drop box and drop off (their ballots)," Crane said. 

The constant message that elections cannot be trusted overall is hurting turnout among Republican voters, he said, pointing to the loss of two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia in the 2020 election to Democrats.

Some of Lupia's election proposals are also not currently allowed under state law. Colorado requires counties provide a certain number of ballot drop boxes based on population.

All counties with more than 1,000 people must use tabulation machines and they must complete recounts with tabulation machines. Only San Juan County is allowed to hand count ballots. 

Lupia also claimed Colorado's ballot tabulation machines "are not, and cannot be, certified to state or federal standards." Neither is there a certification entity capable of doing so, he said. He plans to eliminate them by cutting funding to them.   

Crane said the claim was false and called assertions that Colorado's voting system testing lab lost its certifications — which would render any results certified through it improper — "absurd."

A clerk that violates state law by not providing drop boxes or completing a count on time can be sued by the Secretary of State's Office and the Department of Justice, Crane said. The secretary can also put a third-party observer in place.

Other state election officials say it would be difficult for El Paso County to accurately hand count its large number of ballots and meet statutory deadlines.

There are 466,077 active registered voters in El Paso County as of June 1, according to data from the Colorado Secretary of State's Office. During the countywide election in November, El Paso County saw about 36% voter turnout, or about 171,000 ballots cast, local election data show.

Lupia told The Gazette teams of three to four trained volunteers have proved they can accurately count 100 ballots in approximately 15 minutes. He said if El Paso County averaged 1,200 votes for each of its approximately 325 precincts — or 390,000 votes total — and averaged 300 votes counted per hour, it would take about four hours to accurately count the ballots.

"Everyone would have preliminary final results late election night and wake up the next day with full results," Lupia said.

Colorado law allows counties to begin counting mail ballots 15 days ahead of an election, but even that time frame is too tight to hand-count ballots and adhere to other statutory deadlines, Mesa County Director of Elections Brandi Bantz said. 

Bantz was hired as Mesa County’s director of elections in April 2020. After embattled Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, who faces 13 criminal felony charges for alleged elections tampering and misconduct, was removed from her post, Bantz was among the elections team who helped conduct the county’s November 2021 election and its December audit, which included a hand count.

Before Bantz moved to Mesa County, she worked in El Paso County's elections department for about 10 years.

"A majority of voters vote on Monday and Tuesday, so it would be very time-consuming," Bantz said.

Hand-counting ballots includes checking in ballots, conducting signature verifications, separating ballots from their envelopes, and then conducting the hand tally.

"It's going to take a very long time to get those results. In El Paso County, that would be a tough ask," Bantz said. "Laws would have to be changed to extend the time frame."

She also said the practice of hand-counting ballots is more vulnerable to inaccuracies because humans make more errors than automatic tabulation machines.

As part of Mesa County's process to test its tabulation machines for accuracy, election officials fill out 25 blank ballots each, which they then hand-tally. The test ballots are then run through the electronic machines and those results are compared to the hand counts, Bantz said.

"Since I've worked here in Mesa County doing the hand tally in the (accuracy test), they've never matched up one time," Bantz said. "It's always been human error. That's just with 25 ballots."

El Paso County Republican Janna Blanter said while she has doubts about election practices in other states, she has faith in the local office after seeing all the checks and balances firsthand as an election judge.

"I think the system we have in place is very, very well done. It’s very open and transparent," she said.

She noted all the county's polling places are staffed by a combination of Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters, and anyone can volunteer to observe the process if they have questions.

While she does see room for improvement, such as better maintenance of the voter rolls, she doesn’t agree with returning to hand-counting ballots. She said she was aghast when she first heard about Lupia's plan.

It would be "an invitation of an absolute disaster of so many human errors," she said.

No federal or state laws prohibit a hand count of ballots "if it is done in addition to a count through certified voting equipment," said Annie Orloff, a spokeswoman in the Colorado Secretary of State's Office. 

Lupia said he would "consider" a machine count as a "follow-up" to verify a hand count of tabulations.

Reporter

Breeanna Jent covers El Paso County government. She previously worked as the editorial assistant for the Pikes Peak Newspapers and joined their sister paper, The Gazette, in 2020.

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